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This I Believe…

A Statement of Beliefs can be a huge help in guiding our organizations to the future of our choosing

Zingerman's Statement of Beliefs

Heather Richardson Cox closed her column about the meeting of the G7 leaders the other day with this simple line: “There are lots of moving pieces in the world right now.” Here’s a small bit about a piece that I believe is moving in a really positive direction.

Over the last five weeks I’ve written a lot about organizational culture, the metaphorical soil on which we stand when we come to work every day. The increased care and nurturing of culture that I’ve been talking about would be well in line with what Krista Tippett says when she posits that we’re living in an era “in which a new relationship to the ground we stand on has become a civilizational calling.” This week, that calling, in my mind, is to dig deeper; to get down, below the surface we stand on, and to give some serious and considered thought to the roots of organizational beliefs that are in the cultural soil of every single organization.

In his great new book, How Not to Be Afraid, Gareth Higgins writes, “The stories we tell shape everything we experience.” Stories—whether they’re about what happened yesterday at home, the way we’re working together, how we interpret the news, or whatever new initiative we’re thinking of undertaking—are essentially beliefs made manifest in our heads and in everyday conversation. As per the anecdote at the beginning of this newsletter about the English folks driving home from their daughter’s wedding in France, when we change the beliefs, we change the story. When we choose our beliefs thoughtfully and intentionally, we then have the power to shape our organizational ecosystems much more effectively into what we want them to be. As William James wrote so many years ago, “Belief creates the actual fact.”

Which is why I’m so happy to share this story. After about three years of hard—if often interrupted during the pandemic—work, we are now formally rolling out our new Statement of Beliefs at Zingerman’s. It won’t make national headlines, and even here inside the organization its introduction will hardly be a major story for most. And yet, I believe that over the coming years we will come to realize how big a deal it is. Ten years from now, I forecast, most people who work here will take it for granted as just part of the work we do, and hundreds of other organizations around the world will have put together Statements of Beliefs of their own. In the years ahead, the Statement of Beliefs will have as much impact on the way we work here as writing our Mission and Guiding Principles in 1991, finishing our first formal Vision for Zingerman’s 2009 back in 1994, teaching our Training Compact in 1994, embarking upon Open Book Management in 1996, or embracing Lean management systems in the early “aughties.” Rolling out the Zingerman’s Statement of Beliefs, I can see clearly, is a radical and meaningful act.

Ironically—or not—I wrote that last line before consciously recalling what I have long known: the root of “radical,” is “root.” My unintended choice of words really couldn’t have been more appropriate; the work to agree on what’s in the Statement of Beliefs, and now put into practice, is by definition a radical act. It’s akin to our decision in 1991 to define “quality” at Zingerman’s as “full-flavored, traditional food,” which allowed us to separate our personal tastes from what we were agreeing to do together on a professional level. The Statement of Beliefs is an agreement about how we’re going to work together—even, and especially, on difficult days—as we figure out how to get to the 2032 Vision to which we’re committed.

You can get the idea of what this is all about by looking at just the first four beliefs on the list (there are 30 others on there as well):

We believe leading with positive beliefs makes a positive difference.

We believe each person is a creative, unique individual who can do great things in life.

We believe our individual success can be assessed by how much we help those around us to develop and grow.

We believe personal transformation and growth are imperative to our personal and organizational success.

I’ve read these maybe a thousand times in the last two years, but they still inspire me now as I copy them onto the page. They will give us the intellectual and philosophical framework to enter every conversation.

Why don’t more organizations write a Statement of Beliefs? A quick answer might be that no one else we know has done one either. An even bigger reason could be that, since we all bring a lifetime of beliefs of our own to work with us every day, getting group agreement on a shared set of collective beliefs is not an easy task. Most people in the work world don’t even fully know what underlying beliefs they have, let alone believe that it’s worth trying to come to agreement on a common set of them for a company to commit to. As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, “The underland keeps its secrets well. To retrieve something [such as a belief] from the underland almost always requires effortful work.”

I believe that the cultural “soil” of Zingerman’s will be both richer, and easier to understand, because of this work. It will not be an overnight project; we each have to be willing to examine our own pasts and to try to figure out where we got the beliefs we hold. And, more often than not, when we try to pull out the “root” of one belief, we find it’s entangled with dozens of others. As Gareth Higgins says, “There is more going on in the subterranean channels of the psyche than the influence of just one person.” Understanding this challenge has motivated me even more to do this work—if we don’t come to agreement on the beliefs we are going to work with, we will likely continue to argue over tactics, interpret reality in opposite ways, and then continue to drag our feet when others we don’t agree with try to move forward. If you doubt the veracity of this viewpoint, take a quick look at politics, and give some thought to the varied, and often incongruous, if not overtly stated, belief systems that are at work.

In hindsight, this work on the Statement of Beliefs would be another of what the late Stas’ Kazmierski taught us to call a “belated glimpse of the obvious.” It only makes sense. As James Baldwin once wrote, “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.”

So, what, one might reasonably wonder, is this new Statement of Beliefs? In its most tangible form, it’s a booklet. All told, it’s 48 pages long. It lists 34 beliefs that, after several years of conversation, testing, and re-testing, we have agreed will underlie all of our work here at Zingerman’s. The beliefs themselves take up just two pages, but there are also definitions of key terms (beliefs, guiding principles, mission, vision, etc.) and material about why and how this work will matter. The latter part of the booklet is a series of examples for each belief that detail what that belief looks like in action when we live it well, and also what it will look like when we fall short (which, as imperfect humans, we will still do regularly).

The Statement of Beliefs—especially because it’s so new—will need all of us (me included) to look at it often. Eventually, we will be able to call it up in our sleep as we become what Maggie from ZingTrain taught us years ago, is called “unconsciously competent.” More and more, we will be able to tackle tough conversations and then take actions that are aligned with the beliefs on the Statement without having to open the booklet to make sure what we’re doing is in sync with what we wrote. If we want to create an organizational culture with ever higher levels of inclusion, and a greater sense of belonging, one that defaults to positive beliefs, humility, Servant Leadership, and spreading ownership ever more widely, it sure seems to make sense to let everyone in on the “secrets” behind the ways that we work and think. Why make people guess when we can simply and straightforwardly share the beliefs we’re asking them—and ourselves—to work with?

For whatever reason, the world recently happened to hand me a funny-and-not-funny-at-the-same-time example to illustrate the value of having clarity around organizational beliefs. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that even when our intellect tells us otherwise, the old beliefs are still way down in the “soil.” So being a kid from the Southside of Chicago, even though I haven’t actually watched a baseball game in decades, I still sort of secretly root for the White Sox. Which is why, despite my intellectual apathy about sports, I know a lot about Yermin Mercedes.

Mercedes was born in the mid-sized town of La Romana on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic. He played in the minor leagues for something like ten years, and it was not at all clear this winter that he would make the White Sox in the spring. Thanks in part to injuries to more established players, he made a Major League roster for the first time ever in April, at the unlikely age of 28. Mercedes opened the season by getting an amazing eight hits in his first eight at-bats. He’s been playing regularly, and nearly two months into the season he was one of the Major League leaders in hitting. He’s fallen off a bit since, but he still has the second highest batting average on the team.

A few weeks ago, the White Sox were beating Minnesota 15-4 in the top of the ninth inning. Mercedes was at the plate, with a count of three balls and no strikes. On the fourth pitch Mercedes hit a home run. Which sure seemed terrific to me, and also to Mercedes and his teammates, all of whom launched into the sort of celebration that follows any home run. The bad news is that his manager, Tony LaRussa, had some long-held, but obviously now unshared, beliefs. “Big mistake,” he said on ESPN, calling Mercedes “clueless.” While I can chuckle at the apparent silliness of this situation, the sadder reality is that this sort of clash of otherwise unspoken and unwritten, “secret” beliefs is happening in our organizations every day. The resulting arguments don’t appear on ESPN, but the negative impact on morale and effectiveness is the same. Getting “yelled at” (even quietly) for deciding to do what you believed was best, then finding out later that your boss believed it was anything but, is never a good feeling.

It’s not hard to imagine how similar situations could have happened here in the past, and how having the Statement of Beliefs can help us going forward. Take this belief, the tenth one on our new list:

We believe asking for help is a sign of strength.

Clearly, this runs counter to standard wisdom in the American work world, which would likely lead you to believe the exact opposite. Here’s what Gareth Higgins writes about asking for help:

We know it would be better if we did it, but in some less enlightened parts of our culture, there is a powerful urge to resist asking for help. Asking for help is too often taken to be a sign of weakness, despite evidence to the contrary.

Over the years I’ve seen this play out here pretty regularly. If a new staff member has been trained by past bosses, their parents, social media, or the movies to believe that asking for help is a terrible thing to do, it will lead them to pretend that “everything is ok” when in fact, they’re headed for big trouble. Even if the manager asks if they want assistance, they’re likely to insist that they’re fine. Later we get customer complaints about the poor service the staffer delivered. Would having the Statement of Beliefs in hand prevent the problem every time? No, of course not. But if it cut the incidences of it happening in half, wouldn’t that be a meaningful move in the right direction? And wouldn’t it be easier to review the situation and reset so it goes better the next time? In the process, we improve customer service, the staff member feels better about their job, and the manager is less stressed. It will pretty surely help make real what Gareth Higgins suggests: “A person asking for help should be celebrated.”

If we use it well, the Statement of Beliefs will lead to all sorts of improvements, in particular:

  1. 1. More effective decision making — Having agreed on the key beliefs before we start discussing “what to do” can only help.
  2. 2. Better training — Telling new staff up front what we believe rather than making them figure it out on their own will diminish stress and increase effectiveness.
  3. 3. Improved hiring — Certainly not every applicant will be interested in our Statement of Beliefs. But those who want to work someplace special and who are in alignment with what we’re doing, are more likely to be drawn to Zingerman’s when they read through this booklet.

To that list you could add reducing stress, more folks wanting to keep working here, personal health (there’s more and more data I’ve seen showing the health consequences of negative beliefs), and more. To be clear, it is not our expectation that folks who work here will adopt the beliefs in the Statement in their lives outside of work. Just as I don’t judge them for how they eat on their days off, what they want to believe when they’re not here is up to them. That said, I will forecast that the more people work with these positive beliefs, the more likely they are, over time, to integrate this way of being into their personal lives as well.

My intent in writing this piece is not in the least to convince anyone to adopt the same beliefs we have here at Zingerman’s. In fact, I would suggest the best path is for each organization to work together to come up with its own. Understanding, as I have started to, the power of beliefs, it’s not unlikely that if you’re reading this, yours may well likely be similar in some ways to what we have agreed on here. Still, each organization would benefit from making time to talk about and settle on a Statement of Beliefs of their own.

Neil Gaiman once said, “Our stories will outlive us. Let’s make them good.” The story of the Statement of Beliefs—its creation, its implementation, and in the coming years, the ZingTrain training, articles, podcasts, and maybe even some poetry that will come from it—is a story that I’m confident will long outlive many of us who were part of creating it. Both the concept and the contents are a beautiful bit of the legacy we can leave to the world.

Rolling out our Statement of Beliefs certainly won’t fix all the world’s—or our—problems in the next few weeks. Even when we have the Statement of Beliefs fully integrated into our organizational culture, we will surely still make mistakes—though I’m pretty sure they will most often be mistakes made in the honest and heartfelt pursuit of the positive. And those are the sort of errors I’ll take any day! This work, to be clear, isn’t about “fixing others,” it’s only about us doing better work here at Zingerman’s, in the belief that, as Gareth Higgins says, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” Small constructive changes can make a big difference; plant positive “roots” and good things are bound to grow. The Statement of Beliefs will, in the years that come, become an integral part of the story of what makes Zingerman’s Zingerman’s. It will make us a more effective business and a better employer in the process. I’m smiling as I say that, but as you can probably tell, I take this work very seriously. As Gareth Higgins writes, “Imagining a new story is a privilege. It is also our responsibility.”

In the belief that many folks will want to see and study the nearly half a hundred pages of the Statement of Beliefs booklet, it’s up for sale! And The Power of Beliefs in Business has hundreds of pages of background info, exercises, and insights on the subject as well.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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